According to the American College of Gastroenterology, Gastroenterology is the study of the normal function and diseases of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts, and liver.
A gastroenterologist needs to have a detailed understanding of the normal physiology of all the above-mentioned organs as well as motility through the intestines and gastrointestinal tract in order to maintain healthy digestion, absorption of nutrients, removal of waste, and metabolic processes.
A gastroenterologist also needs to have a clear understanding of ailments affecting the organs of the gastrointestinal system like:
- peptic ulcer disease
- gastric cancers
- esophageal cancers
- Barret’s esophagus
- colon polyps
- colon and bowel cancers
- pancreatic cancers
- biliary tract disease
- gallbladder stones and cancer
- gastroesophageal reflux
- nutritional problems and malabsorption,
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- a host of other disease conditions:
What does a gastroenterologist do?
A gastroenterologist is a specialist with expertise in the disorders and diseases that affect the digestive system — which includes the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus) as well as the pancreas, liver, bile ducts and gallbladder.
The digestive disorders and issues that a gastroenterologist treats include:
- Unexplained changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea, constipation and blood in the stool
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
“Gastroenterologists are trained to perform a number of procedures used to help diagnose and treat these conditions, such as upper endoscopy, colonoscopy, biopsy, and the various endoscopic techniques needed to visualize the digestive system, including endoscopic ultrasound,”
When should you see a gastroenterologist?
Here are seven reasons to consider seeing a gastroenterologist:
1. Ongoing diarrhea
From food to infection to certain medications, many things can bring on a bout of diarrhea. However, if your stool is regularly more liquid than solid, it’s time to check in with a GI doctor.
“Chronic diarrhea can be an indication of a few different digestive disorders, including IBS, IBD, or small bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), “IBS is the most common cause of chronic diarrhea. Fortunately, there are many treatment avenues your doctor can use to help manage your symptoms.”
The frequency of bowel movements ultimately varies from person to person, but less than three a week is typically considered constipation. You might also be constipated if your bowel movements are very small, very hard, or difficult to pass.
If you’re constipated for more weeks than not, consult a gastroenterologist.
“Constipation can have many causes and it can be hard to manage on your own at home, “A GI specialist can help determine the likely cause of your constipation and recommend the lifestyle changes and medications that can help make your bowel movements more regular.”
3. Frequent or severe heartburn
Getting heartburn now and then shouldn’t be a matter of huge concern, and the good news is that occasional heartburn can typically be managed yourself at home.
But if you’re having heartburn symptoms more than a couple of times per week, it could be a sign of GERD — a condition that, over time, can damage and scar the lining of the esophagus.
“Chronic acid reflux doesn’t go away on its own, so it’s important to be evaluated by a specialist. Left untreated, GERD can cause permanent damage to the esophagus. This damage can lead to issues swallowing, cause painful ulcers and even increase a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer.”
4. Feeling unusually bloated
Bloating, which can feel like your belly is full or tight, is often caused by issues that result in excess gas production, hypersensitivity to gas, or gas being trapped in your colon.
“Constipation can cause bloating since the longer waste stays in your colon, the more likely it is to be fermented by resident bacteria, which creates gas. “But bloating can also be a sign of IBS, a food sensitivity such as lactose intolerance, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or gastroparesis (partial paralysis of the stomach).”
A gastroenterologist can help you identify what exactly is the cause of your bloating and the most effective way to treat it.
5. Sudden or severe abdominal pain
We’ve all dealt with bellyaches, but severe abdominal pain that lasts for hours or abdominal pain that comes on suddenly and intensely isn’t normal.
“A stomach ulcer or peptic ulcer, which is a sore on the lining of your stomach or first part of your small intestine can lead to burning abdominal pain, particularly after eating,” says Dr. Glassner. “An untreated ulcer can cause swelling and scarring that blocks your digestive tract.”
Consistently severe abdominal pain can also be a sign of gallstones, pancreatitis or liver disease. A gastroenterologist can help determine the cause of your pain.
6. Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
If you see blood on your toilet paper or as you flush the toilet, it could be hemorrhoids — a fairly common issue that can typically be managed with at-home remedies or over-the-counter products.
“However, if hemorrhoids aren’t responding to these treatments or you’re getting them frequently, a gastroenterologist can recommend more advanced treatments that can help you get relief.
Additionally, don’t assume that blood in the toilet can only mean hemorrhoids.
“Any time you see blood in your stool or have rectal bleeding that is accompanied by changes in your bowel habits or to the color or consistency of your stool, it’s critical that you see a gastroenterologist. Rectal bleeding isn’t always a huge concern, but it can be a sign of a serious medical condition such as colorectal cancer.”
7. You’re due for a colonoscopy
If you’re over the age of 45 or have a strong family history of colorectal cancer, you’ve probably heard your doctor recommend a colonoscopy.
“Most people begin having screening colonoscopies at age 45, From there, the frequency varies based on your results — but if the findings are normal and you have no other risk factors, you only need to repeat a colonoscopy every 10 years.”
And while a colonoscopy might sound uncomfortable, it can save your life. Early detection of colorectal cancer is important — when caught early, it can lead to less aggressive treatment and a better chance of survival.
Gastroenterologists specialize in gastrointestinal issues, such as IBS, ulcers, polyps, and chronic heartburn. These doctors have 3 years of medical college under their belt, as well as 5 to 6 years of additional training. Typically, they don’t perform surgeries, but they do perform endoscopic procedures, which can help them diagnose and treat many GI conditions.
Your primary care physician will most likely recommend you visit a gastroenterologist if they notice something is off about your digestion, if you have pain in your stomach, or certain blood tests come back with elevated levels.
What happens at a gastroenterology appointment?
If you’ve noticed any of those seven signs, it’s time to consider scheduling an appointment with GI doctor.
At your first appointment, your gastroenterologist will:
- Ask you about your digestive symptoms and medical history
- Recommend any lifestyle changes or medications that can help relieve your symptoms
- Discuss any tests, screenings, or procedures that may be needed
You may find it helpful to make a list of your symptoms before your appointment so that you don’t forget to ask about any of the issues you’re having.
“Through this initial evaluation, your doctor will start the process of uncovering the cause of your digestive issues and begin addressing your symptoms, “If your condition is chronic, he or she will also discuss how best to manage your condition over time. Your doctor may also talk to you about additional testing that may be needed if your symptoms don’t improve.”
Your Physical Exam
The gastroenterologist will look at you to try to find the cause of your symptoms. You’ll lie on the exam table and relax. Your doctor will press down on the skin around your belly. They’ll listen for odd bowel sounds and feel for any masses or tenderness. They may ask you to take deep breaths or cough during your exam.
They might also put a finger into your rectum to feel for any bulges or masses, and to check the muscle tone.
What Are the Next Steps?
The gastroenterologist may send you for X-rays, a CT scan, or blood and stool tests. They may give you a stool test. Among other things, a stool culture can check how well your body absorbs and uses fat. They may also test your motility (how food moves through your digestive system).
The doctor might also suggest procedures to diagnose your problem. They’ll schedule these tests for later and tell you how to prepare:
Barium swallow or enema: Barium is a liquid that highlights areas inside your body on a scan. The doctor may give you barium to drink to check your esophagus, stomach, or upper small intestine. Or you may need one to check your colon or rectum. An X-ray will show the doctor your organs as they move.
Endoscopy: This long, thin tube with a tiny camera on the end goes through your mouth so the doctor can look at your upper digestive tract or take a biopsy (tissue sample). You may get an endoscopy if you have persistent heartburn, belly pain, vomiting, or other problems that don’t go away.
Colonoscopy: The doctor puts a thin scope with a camera on the end into your bottom. It goes into your colon, rectum, or large intestine to look for polyps or bleeding, get rid of any polyps, or take a biopsy. Your doctor may order a colonoscopy to check for problems such as inflammatory bowel disease, or problems that may cause changes in how often and how you poop, belly pain, or blood in your stool.
Enteroscopy: You may have this procedure if an endoscopy or a colonoscopy fails to find anything. You swallow a tiny video capsule that transmits pictures of the insides of your digestive tract. An enteroscopy may reveal causes of bleeding and ulcers (sores) caused by Crohn’s disease, among other things.
Your gastroenterologist may suggest over-the-counter antacids, or prescribe medications to treat your heartburn, gas, constipation, or other symptoms. They often prescribe proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, or metoclopramide, which helps with motility.
Your gastroenterologist may tell you to do these things to manage your symptoms:
- Cut back on caffeine.
- Don’t eat foods that trigger symptoms.
- Eat more fiber.
- Exercise regularly.
- Find ways to manage your stress.
- Poop when you have the urge.
What You Can Do to Help
Follow your gastroenterologist’s lifestyle tips to feel better, and get regular colon screenings to spot early signs of cancer.
Let the doctor know if you have blood in your stool, changes in your bowel movements, fatigue, or weight loss you can’t explain.
About Fortune Healthcare Gastroenterology Department
Department of Fortune Healthcare Gastroenterology is devoted to the clinical care of patients with gastrointestinal and liver disorders. The department is home to excellent patient care, and our specialists employ the most advanced diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy services to ensure the best outcomes for each patient. Working closely with a dedicated staff that includes doctors, technologists, nurses, dietitians, and more, our care is unsurpassed with the kind of quality and compassion you can expect from a leader in healthcare.
A gastroenterologist is a medical professional who specializes in diseases of the digestive system and digestive tract.
A doctor might refer someone to a gastroenterologist if they have symptoms that suggest a problem with the digestive system.
Gastroenterologists can diagnose, treat, and manage a wide range of gut-related conditions.
They also carry out certain medical procedures, such as endoscopies and colonoscopies.
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